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Women are going sober (and not just for January)

Women’s drinking is scrutinised in a way that men’s is not, says Rachael Sigee – is it pressuring women to go teetotal?

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By Rachael Sigee on

“I would say that women's drinking is scrutinised, whether that's being judged for getting too tipsy at a work event, or being considered smug or sanctimonious if you try and cut down or give up,” says Rosamund Dean.

As Dry January rears its head again, convincing us all that now is the time to abstain from that after-hours glass of merlot, many of us are feeling the pressure to go teetotal. Dean opted for moderation – and has literally written the book on changing her relationship with booze – but she’s not alone. The writer and journalist joins a thriving community of women who have turned their backs on booze and feel all the better for it.

From memoirs on going sober by Clare Pooley and Catherine Gray to Instagram accounts @betterwithoutbooze and @drybeclub that combine non-alcoholic beverage recipes with inspirational quotes, women online are talking about sobriety with the same fervour they once reserved for kale.

There are blogs like Girl & Tonic and websites like Hip Sobriety dedicated to it and the hugely successful mindful-drinking movement, Club Soda, which promotes living martini-free. The most interesting part? Women are behind them all. There was even a segment on Women’s Hour about it last week.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that the chorus of voices currently extolling the virtues of going sober is largely female. Women are no strangers to seeking self-improvement and it is January, the month of sanctioned public self-flagellation that is New Year. The proof is in the statistics: more than three million Brits are reportedly taking part in Dry January this year.

But there is no doubt that, as Dean says, women’s drinking is scrutinised in a way that men’s is not. It is women who are pictured falling over outside a bar with their dresses tucked into their knickers (while male politicians show how down to earth they are by conducting entire election campaigns with a pint in hand), or sozzled on the sofa gulping down pinot grigio, or staggering home after necking an extra G&T.

Women are primed for reinvention, pummelled by constant demands to be better and, as Laura Willoughby, co-founder of mindful-drinking movement Club Soda, says, more likely to seek help for bad drinking habits earlier than men: “Women begin to see sooner that alcohol’s having an impact. They’re more likely to seek that help online and they’re more likely to talk about it online.”

Cross-generationally, women have different reasons for cutting down or giving up. Some are those notoriously clean-living millennials who are making clean-living decisions at an age when most of us were discovering there were drinks beyond alcopops. Others are women are who are addressing their drinking habits after years of boozing.

Whether it’s how we drink, what we drink why we drink or why we don’t, women’s relationship with alcohol is especially complicated at this time of year

At the age of 43, Willoughby believes that the movement for gender equality combined with ladette culture contributed to her generation developing heavier drinking habits: “It all started with us wanting to find our place in an equal workplace, which involved drinking with the lads after work and to not be weaker than, or less than, and really buying into that very male culture of work. We’re beginning to see that women have decided that that’s not a price worth paying any more.”

But using alcohol as a coping mechanism has become the socially accepted norm, especially for women and especially for mothers, as Alexandra Heminsley has written for The Pool.

Willoughby agrees: “Lots of women use it when they get home in order to create a break between time that they spend with their kids and their time later on in the evening. Or they drink at home with their partner because it’s no longer acceptable for the man to go out and go to the pub and the woman stay at home and look after the kids. Or they used it as a way to quickly de-stress.”

There is also the burden to drink alcohol in the “right” way under scrutiny from the press, but also from peers, as raised by Dean. “I think men have similar social pressure to drink, too, but it does feel more pronounced for women,” she says.

“I don't think men feel the same pressure that women do to always be up for a drink – because this makes you the cool/fun girl – but also to never lose control, because women should know their limits.”

But Willoughby says this is one of the main reasons she hears from women giving up: “The thing I find really common in women is that so many of us talk about how we have no off switch. That’s embarrassing because we have this perception that other people know when to stop and we don’t,” she says. “It makes us feel like we’re a failure, that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re not normal.”

So, it makes sense that in January, when we’re trying to take control of so many things in our lives, we might also want to take control over our drinking. A recent YouGov poll showed that over 40 per cent of women make self-improvement resolutions compared with 33 per cent of men.

But trying to overhaul everything at once is likely to result in a false start. Which Willoughby explains, is almost impossible when you change your drinking habits: “If you can get a month off drinking under your belt, then diet and fitness and everything else become a lot easier… Actually, if you’ve been drinking quite a bit, chances are your sweet tooth is going to go mad in January, so you need to allow yourself to have a Haribo coma every now and again.”

Whether it’s how we drink, what we drink why we drink or why we don’t, women’s relationship with alcohol is especially complicated at this time of year. And while it’s important to be mindful of our health, ultimately women shouldn’t feel pressured to conform – whether that’s going to the pub or getting stuck into the Haribo.


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